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Art Matters! A History of Romanesque & Gothic Medieval Art

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by Janet Cornacchio,

President, Scituate Arts Association

In my last column, we completed a look at the “Ancient & Classical” eras of Western Art.  Now, on to the next major stage in Western history—the Medieval Era or Middle Ages.  First, let’s look at the Early Medieval Period Art (476-1000) and Byzantine Art next time, both of which evolved from the art of the Roman Empire when it split into the Eastern and Western Empires as it devolved.  As previously mentioned, the collapse of the Empire, the splintering into smaller nation states, and the changes it wrought in how art was conceived will be the focus of the next few columns.

The Roman Empire swallowed a massive amount of territory,  much more than Alexander’s short-lived empire.  At its height, Roman rule extended to all the lands around the Mediterranean Basin, including the Iberian and Balkan Peninsulas; the lands of two of the early cradles of civilizations found along the Tigris & Euphrates Rivers and the Nile (Mesopotamia & Egypt); the land of Carthage and beyond across Northern Africa; plus England into part of Scotland; and on the European continent as far North as most of Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark.  

The Romans ruled these lands for almost 400 years with a system of roads that allowed for relatively fast messenger communication and troop movements, but as the emperors lost power, so did the Empire’s reach to the provinces.  The various peoples who inhabited the provinces were only partially assimilated into the culture of Imperial Rome, mix in the advent of Christianity as the state religion after the Emperor Constantine’s conversion with the waves of migrating Central Asian tribes (the Huns, etc.) arriving in Europe, and the scene was set for the formation of what was to become today’s European nations.  These nations formed along the lines where various ethnic peoples settled and forged new cultural identities.  

The modern term for this period of time, once referred to as the Dark Ages, now recognizes what was occurring throughout Europe: the “Migration Period.” From about 300-700, the Germanic and Eastern European peoples including the Huns, Goths, Vandals, and Franks, among others were moving across the European continent, settling in territory that was once part of the Roman Empire.  Some of the recognized ethnic or regional art styles include those of the Anglo-Saxons in Great Britain, the Visigoths on the Italian and Iberian peninsulas, the Norse peoples of Scandinavia and that of the Franks and Merovingians whose reign expanded across modern France, southern Germany and the Netherlands.  As was previously mentioned, as Imperial Rome failed, its art lost the assurance and classic proportions of the Empire’s height. In the early years of Christianity as the state religion, there was opposition to monumental religious sculpture, no doubt in reaction to pagan images of the myths of the gods, altars for sacrifices, etc., although traditional portrait busts and sarcophagi were accepted and did continue.  The period’s architecture— religious, public and private—was replaced by larger structures, so little remains to study from this era and few significant artworks produced from wood, leather, and other natural materials survived into the modern eras. 

Medieval art was not purely aesthetic, but also a symbol that could proclaim one’s status, education, identity, and culture. As such, they were executed in valuable materials and these works became the main sculptural traditions (as far as is known) of the various ethnic groups of the Migration period.  A fusion of the Mediterranean Christian and native pagan traditions appears utilizing animal and geometric motifs derived from classical art.  Most artwork was small, portable and decorative—jewelry, religious chalices for communion and weaponry, quite often.  Human figures are rare with no attempt at realism.  

The archaeological evidence from this period is limited. What remains consists mainly of small portable and non-perishable objects recovered from burial sites.  One of the most famous examples, the 6th-century burial treasure at Sutton Hoo, a burial ship found in Suffolk, England, includes a variety of highly decorated weapons and functional elements—shoulder clasps (no buttons or zippers, remember) and buckles, among others.  Most well known is a helmet which has been replicated by the Royal Armouries for the British Museum.  Several new art forms appeared during the Migration: illuminated manuscript and coins whose style is derived from that of the Roman Provinces and Byzantium.  Coinage profiles indicated the sculptor’s unfamiliarity with the most basic portrait skills.    

Meanwhile, a similar process was going on in Byzantium where Eastern Christianity held sway.  The power shift in the Near East with the rise of Islam beginning in the 6th century was another factor in the art and life of the Early Medieval world.  An understanding of the dynamics of history is an important factor in art’s evolution with sculpture and architecture, as always, being the most lasting and readily apparent expression of a culture’s artistic values and vision.